In the first few weeks of January, I began to noticed the same four or five guys hanging around the underground passageway between Nankai Station and the Osaka subway in Namba. None of them are kids – mainly in their early to mid-20s, plus a guy who must be 30, presumably their leader. Fashionably turned out (the goatees, artfully disheveled Rod Stewart hair and elf boots which are still trendy here, though probably long-gone in Tokyo), relatively good-looking, they look at their cellphones, enter messages or whatever, trying to look occupied. I watched them the other day (I took out my cellphone too – it absolves you of any suspicion here, for some reason). They make a point of standing near the support pillars to catch the flow of commuters coming from either side, commuters who are totally occupied with getting a seat on the train to wherever and who probably wouldn’t give them a second thought.
Every now and then one of them spots a woman walking alone in the crowd on the way to or from the subway. He walks up behind her, politely says “sumimasen (excuse me),” and tries to engage in conversation. Usually, the women ignore him (the smart ones), but every now and then, out of ingrained politeness or naivety, they stop and listen to the man’s spiel. More often than not, the woman says, “sorry,” and walks away, leaving the guy to face-savingly flip open the keitai and feign receiving an important message. He goes back to stand by a pillar, and another guy tries his luck with someone else.
I assumed they were doing what is known here as “catch-sales,” that is, catching someone unawares at a crowded station, and asking them to take a “survey” or some such scam. The “interviewer” eventually persuades the mark to come round to the office to receive some nice jewelry and maybe buy some more at bargain-basement prices. When they arrive, they are of course pressured into buying a lot of stuff they don’t need and the embarrassment alone prevents them from going to the police (the universally-assumed complete lack of sympathy from the cops isn’t much incentive either). Unbelievably, many young women will go off with the charming lug (the Nankai Line heads out to the sticks of Wakayama Prefecture and southern Mie, and perhaps the guys are looking for the guileless country girls with new office jobs).
Harassment, you say? Well yes, of course it is – even in Japan. In fact, it’s illegal, and last year there was a very public campaign to clean the catchers out of Namba and JR Tennoji Stations, where they had become blatant to the point of brazenness. For a while it worked, but then I start to notice these guys.
I went to speak to some subway staff. At the ticket gates a young woman in cap and uniform stood in the on-duty booth. “Excuse me, those men over there are doing catch sales. Could you stop them, please?”
Now, I didn’t expect the woman – who was standing on the raised floor of the booth and was still shorter than me – to go over there and personally manhandle the lads, but as the person on duty she could at least have notified someone official to officially go over there and at least officially tell them to piss off (it being a crime and all). But no.
She looked at me and said, in reassuring tones “Kyachu seiru shinai desu. Nanpa o-shimasu,” and then smilingly turned away, absolved of any responsibility, to more important things. They’re not doing catch sales. They’re cruising for sex. (nanpa – yes, there’s a word for it)
Well, that’s all right then.
Youthful indiscretion. What can you do, eh? For a moment, it sounded like fairly enlightened thinking – until I tried to imagine what the reaction of the train police (they exist) would be if a group of young women were to try the same stunt on passing men, or if some harmless old drag queens wandered up from Shinsekai and begged a few gentlemen’s pardons in Namba Station of an afternoon (or, more horrible still, if ordinary-looking young men walked up and solicited other ordinary-looking young men). They’d be gone in the time it takes to bat a false eyelash. Personally, I still think the men were doing catch sales, but could never prove it. However, I’m still trying to imagine where else on earth a (female) public official would placate a complainant by explaining that the loitering boys in the station were just trying to get laid.